24 June 2012

Secretly pleased

Tatiana de Rosnay's name appeared on my to-read list. I don't know how, but it was probably because somebody recommended her best seller, Sarah's Key. When we stopped at the Amery (WI) library on the way to Sidetrack, I didn't find Sarah's Key, but I did find de Rosnay's newer book, A Secret Kept.

I really liked reading this book.

de Rosnay grew up in the US and the UK (her degree from the University of East Anglia was in English literature) and lives in Paris. There's no translator listed in the book, so I assume that de Rosnay translated her French book, Boomerang, herself. The language is very American and very descriptive. In fact, her descriptions -- of people, emotions, clothing, rooms, houses, and Parisian neighborhoods are very suggestive. They often brought realistic images to my mind. In fact, de Rosnay's adeptness in describing relationships is part of what makes this novel work:
I see Pauline appear over her [his daughter's] shoulder. Her best friend since they were small. Except that Pauline now looks like a twenty-year-old. A minute ago she was a scraggy little thing. Now it is impossible not to notice her full bosom and womanly hips. I don't hug her they way I used to when she was a kid. In fact, I don't even kiss her on the cheek. We sort of wave at each other from a polite distance.
The story in the book is about family and family secrets. The narrator is a forty-something son of an old, rich Parisian family. His sister is important as are his children and some of their friends. But the story is really about a huge family secret involving the narrator's mother, who died 30 years before the setting of the story, and about the hard work required for a group of people to be family.

de Rosnay theatrically weaves the stories of past and present, of generations and places, of habits and family "rules" into a book I didn't want to put down and didn't want to end. Every character in the stories is respected by de Rosnay, even the ones I didn't think deserved it. Neither suffering nor happiness was denied characters. In the end, that made the book better. So did the fact that not every loose end was tied up and not every story was complete when the book ended. If this were a television soap opera, there would be many story lines to follow in the future.

The book jacket says that de Rosnay has written ten novels. Only two have been published in the USA. There are probably more novels to come to America. I will look for Sarah's Key and for future books with Tatiana de Rosnay's name on the covers.

Have you read A Secret Kept? Tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it by sending us a note.

Comically weird

I am really lucky. If I'd read Kate Atkinson's first novel before reading her mysteries, I might never have had the great pleasure of meeting Jackson Brodie and getting involved in the messy realities of his fictional life. That first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award.

That book didn't win any awards from me. I couldn't get through it.

But I really enjoyed reading the four mysteries she wrote. And I enjoyed the BBC rendition of a couple of them. I enjoyed them so much, that I picked up her third book when I was last at the library. It is Emotionally Weird, A Comic Novel.

Okay, I'll give it the comic label. There are some funny bits. Not many, but some. While reading the first half of it, I was reminded of what I've heard about Seinfeld. You have to understand, I've seen bits of Seinfeld, but never a whole half hour's worth. I've chuckled at some bits, but not many. I've heard it said that it was a situation comedy about nothing. As a very casual observer, I'll buy that. And Emotionally Weird, A Comic Novel is also about nothing -- at least in the first half that I read.

The narrator's boy friend epitomizes the book for me. She said in an early chapter:
I shut the door and went back to bed and the warm, slack body of Bob with whom I lived in urban squalor in a festering tenement attic in Paton's Lane...
Bob, known by some as "Magic Bob,"... was in fact an unmagic Essex boy Ilford born and bred...
Like me, Bob was a student at Dundee University... He seldom handed in an essay and considered it a point of honour never to go to a lecture and instead lived the slow life of a nocturnal sloth, smoking dope, watching television and listening to Led Zeppelin...
Bob's sense of humour... had been developed the Goons and honed by The Monkees. Bob's screen hero was Mickey Dolenz...
Bob was an unreconstructed kind of person... he had a complete lack of interest in anything that involved a sustained attention span... He was prone to the usual obsessions and delusions of boys his age -- the Klingons, for example, were as real for Bob as the French or the Germans, more real certainly than, say, Luxemburgers...
In the first half of the book, Bob is easily the most distinct character. If you read the quote above, you got a good taste of Atkinson's humor. And, for me, the description of Bob could be a description of the book.

Now, I can't assert that with any assurance because I didn't read the whole book -- just the first half. By page 200, I was tired of reading about an unmagic group of people who lived slow lives of nocturnal sloths. As much as I appreciate some science fiction fantasy and the craziness of The Monkees, I would rather have watched a Seinfeld marathon than finish the book about nothing.

Any chance that you have read Emotionally Weird, A Comic Novel? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

Other reviews (there are distinct differences of opinion here)

11 June 2012

Living history

Forty-some years ago I had to do a quick study of a culture I'd never heard of: the Kalahari Bushman. That hunting and gathering culture was to be the "stand in" for prehistoric, stone age hunter-gatherers in a World Studies course I was to teach.

The ethnography of anthropologist Richard Lee and the teaching materials developed Malcolm Carr Collier and her team from the American Anthropological Society were wonderful. The Bushmen became the first unit of study for the course I taught for twenty years.

Over the years since then, the Bushman or San culture has come to my attention now and again as one of those quickly vanishing ways of life. Governments have tried to fence them in and get them to be farmers. Those plans were very difficult to fulfill since the people are independent and used to moving from place to place every few weeks and since the Kalahari is a great sandy desert.

Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) have used the Bushmen and their dying culture as a central feature in their latest Detective Kubu mystery, Death of the Mantis. Kubu, if you've forgotten, is a huge man with a huge appetite who, when he's not eating, is Assistant Superintendent of Detectives David (Kubu) Bengu in Botswana.

A number of suspicious deaths in the Kalahari bring Kubu into contact with a Bushman friend he'd gone to elementary school with. The deaths also cause Kubu to deal with a policeman who is convinced that Bushmen are amoral, lesser beings capable of any evil deed. Kubu, with an educated Bushman friend, sees himself above such prejudice.

As police procedures go, the big city cops in Botswana are as sophisticated and well-equipped as those in American cities. The small town cops, not so much. (Sound familiar?) With helicopters, GPS units, bullet proof vests, desert-ready four-wheel-drive Land Rovers, and satellite phones, they pursue the bad guys.

All the equipment doesn't keep them safe or guarantee they'll find the bad guys -- especially when there are at least a couple kinds of bad guys. But it all makes a very good story -- especially when mixed together with the desperation of people whose culture is dying before their eyes.

Once again, the Michael Stanley men have written an intriguing and entertaining story. Add to that the cultural insights offered by two South Africans with remarkable appreciation for the people and the landscapes of southern Africa. This is the third Detective Kubu novel. If you haven't read the others, Death of the Mantis is a good place to start, but you might want to begin witht the first book in the series, A Carrion Death.

 Have you read Death of the Mantis or another of Michael Stanley's books? What did you think of them? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

What a waste

I should be taking notes about how books get to my "to read" list. Books achieve standing because a someone familiar recommends them, because I're read an approving review, or because I've enjoyed reading another book by an author.

There was this mysterious entry on the list: A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley. I don't know how it got on my list, but somehow my system failed me.

On the other hand, maybe it's good for me to read a book I don't like once in awhile as a contrast to books I like.

This novel is subtitled, "A Flavia de Luce Novel." Flavia de Luce is a precocious eleven-year-old who solves crimes. She's as obnoxious as the Sheldon Cooper ("I know everything.") character on television's The Big Bang Theory, but without comic double takes. She's as carelessly daring as [Sue Grafton's series heroine] but without a gun.

The setting is a run down country house in post-WWII rural Britain. A widower with three daughters whose most prominent characteristic seems to be his ability to write articles for a stamp collectors' magazine. Flavia is the youngest of the three daughters. The role of the older two seems to be confined to tormenting their younger sister.

There are clever thieves abroad in the countryside. A gypsy woman is murdered and her niece is attacked. Although the local police seem to be on scene and investigating, the pre-adolescent Flavia is the only one really able to identify suspects and locate clues.

Who reads this stuff? It's not Harry Potter fantasy. It's thin treacle poured over gruel. Literate eleven-year-olds aren't about to dive into the small type and dense text. Young readers aren't going to pick up this 400-page book about their little sister. Teenagers or young adults aren't going to spend time reading a book with no vampires or zombies. It's certainly not for adults like me. It's not a romance. The plot is inventive, but in my mind it's wasted on the characters and the setting. The writing is descriptive of both setting and action, but I never cared about either. Or the characters.

So why did I read it? That's a good question. If I'd bought it, I'd be sending it back to the author with a request for a refund. I read it because the weekend was rainy and windy. Television reception was awful and there really wasn't anything to watch. I'd finished two other books. I plowed on thoughtlessly. What a waste. I should have re-read the old Zane Grey that's on the shelf at the lake.

Do you have some thoughts about A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley? Write and tell this little bit of the world -- especially if you found reasons to like it. It is part of a series. Somebody must like them.